Illness Forces Environmental Crusader to Sidelines
Jean Harris won a stunning victory this month when Oxnard school officials shelved a three-year campaign to build an elementary campus on prime farmland east of town.
But that last hurrah almost killed her.
So now, at age 78, Ventura County’s most enduring environmental crusader is calling it quits as she recovers at a hilltop retreat near Santa Barbara.
“I’m stepping off the merry-go-round; I’ve really been sick,” Harris said last week. “Now I want to smell the roses.”
The high-energy, red-haired Harris, an environmental leader for 25 years, collapsed last month when her liver shut down and her potassium levels fell to zero during what she considered a routine body-cleansing “juice fast.”
“There were warning signs,” she said. “But I didn’t recognize the signals because I was too busy.”
For Harris, a retired Newhall schoolteacher, her latest battle has been her most troubling, since she took on the Oxnard School District. She had served that district for years, first as a consultant who set up its gifted student program and then as a member of its board of trustees from 1986-95.
“I’m very loyal to that district,” she said. “They’re my friends over there. They all know every decision I made for nine years was for the children. But there was a school official who leaned over to me at a hearing and said, ‘You should be ashamed of what you’re doing.’ Well, I wasn’t, and I’m not.”
While school officials favored building on the Emerson Avenue site because it is in a fast-growing area, Harris thought a school there would unnecessarily infringe on protected farmland and expose students and teachers to toxic pesticides.
Even after the school board and Oxnard City Council signed off on the $13-million campus, Harris joined county Supervisor John Flynn, environmental groups and a local planning agency in opposing it.
“She’s a very busy lady doing that which she seems to do best--getting out there and trying to round up the facts and stating her position over and over and over again,” Oxnard school board President Dorothie Sterling said.
“But I don’t see her as a rival,” said Sterling, who served with Harris as a trustee. “We have differing positions, but we still hug when we meet. Our friendship is in tact.”
That bulldog persistence and nonconfrontational style have marked Harris’ causes since she moved to Oxnard in 1976 and almost immediately began work to save its natural resources.
She led a fight that ended in creation of the 65-acre Oxnard Beach Park at Mandalay Bay in 1979--Jean’s Park, admirers call it.
Twenty years ago, she was among the first to sound the alarm for preserving farmland. That led to a countywide protection program in 1983 and repeated battles with developers who wanted to build on city-separating greenbelts. And, she played a key role in the successful Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiatives in 1998, heading the Oxnard SOAR committee.
Off the coast, she supported clean electric motors on oil rigs instead of gasoline motors. And she backed three-mile protective zones around the Channel Islands instead of one-mile zones.
For two decades, she has worked to preserve Ormond Beach, the county’s last remaining undeveloped stretch of coastline, co-founding the Ormond Beach Observers in 1989 and working on the Greater Ormond Beach Task Force since 1993. She and Ormond Beach Observers co-founder Roma Armbrust were awarded national prizes for wetlands preservation last year.
In the meantime, Harris chaired the county’s League of Women Voters committee on environment and land use. And for the past three years she worked with the Living Wage Coalition, completing a study on affordable housing.
“I don’t think there’s anyone out there quite like Jean,” said Kim Uhlich, an analyst for the Environmental Defense Center in Ventura. “She’s an irreplaceable gem in the environmental community. We’re all indebted to her, both humans and nonhumans alike.”
Because of the scope of her activities, she has delayed cutting back her involvement.
“My son said, ‘Mom, I’m 50 and you’re pushing 80, why don’t you slow down?” Harris said. “But I couldn’t give everything up until I found somebody to carry it on. And now I think I have. I’ve got a young lady who is real interested in Ormond who is a powerhouse.”
Harris said she considers Somis activist Pat Arkin, 53, a worthy successor.
Arkin, a non-practicing lawyer, is a leading opponent of government plans to widen a 16-mile stretch of California 118 through the picturesque Las Posas Valley. She said she is most interested in so-called “Smart Growth,” a planning concept that emphasizes compact development within cities and efficient transportation.
She has picked Harris’ brain about a host of subjects.
“I’ve observed her at all sorts of events over the years,” Arkin said. “She’s always at the right place at the right time, saying the right things. But I’m not a clone. Jean Harris is a unique person. I can’t fill her shoes.”
Last year, Harris’ shoes took her to a nine-hour hearing on the merit of the Emerson Avenue school site. In the end, the Local Agency Formation Commission agreed with her view that Oxnard school officials had not considered other better sites that were within the city’s growth boundaries.
“She is really an amazing person,” said Everett Millais, executive director of LAFCO. “She’s so active and involved and passionate. But her presentation was nonconfrontational. She had her facts together. And she presented information that was right to the point. She’s not a fly-off-the-handle type person.”
But now it’s time to take it easy and give a younger generation a chance to lead, she said. Her plans include a trip to Crete next year to celebrate her 80th birthday, taking all 15 members of her immediate family with her. That requires she slow down and get her health back.
“But Roma [Armbrust] tells me, ‘If you step off the merry-go-round, you’ve got to be willing to come back every once in a while or you’ll be bored to death.’ And I would,” she said.